Nuclear Turnaround

Monday, October 20, 2008

U.S. ASSISTANT SECRETARY of State Christopher Hill (left) shakes hands with North Korea's chief negotiator Kim Gye Gwan, at the close of talks over the nuclear crisis on September 19, 2005, as South Korean Deputy Foreign Minister Song Min-soon looks on

IS the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) resorting to brinkmanship yet again on the nuclear front? Or, is the process of six-party talks, explicitly designed to denuclearise the Korean peninsula, becoming redundant? These inter-related questions have come to the fore in the context of a significant statement by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) on September 24.
By that date, the IAEA de-sealed the reprocessing plant at the Yongbyon complex in the DPRK and removed all international surveillance equipment from there. The IAEA inspectors were also withdrawn on the basis of the understanding that they would have no further access to the plant, which was earlier “disabled” under their supervision and in terms of an accord reached at the talks.
In a significant setback for the IAEA, its latest action with regard to the seals and surveillance gadgets, carried out at the behest of the DPRK, could pave the way for irreversible “re-nuclearisation” instead of denuclearisation. As this report is written, U.S. envoy Christopher Hill is in Pyongyang, trying to defuse the crisis; and China has re-emerged as the arbiter of last resort on the DPRK issues.
The talks bring together the DPRK, the United States, China which chairs the intermittent dialogue, South Korea, Japan and Russia. With differential stakes in the eventual denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula, these countries had agreed last year on the “disablement” of the DPRK’s known nuclear facilities. Not an end itself, the “disablement” was decided upon as a prelude to the “dismantlement” of the entire gamut of the DPRK’s nuclear “capabilities”.
Integral to all the sequential agreements within the six-party talks framework are the open or implicit commitments by the DPRK’s five dialogue partners to give it conventional energy resources and economic aid as well as humanitarian help. Such “action” would “match” Pyongyang’s “action” towards denuclearisation. It is in this perspective that the latest crisis broke out.
As part of the accord, Pyongyang presented “a nuclear declaration” on June 26. The “declaration”, not released for public scrutiny, was said to outline the DPRK’s entire range of nuclear facilities, programmes and activities. On June 27, the DPRK demolished the solitary cooling tower at the Yongbyon complex in a carefully choreographed “blast for peace”. Following that, U.S. President George W. Bush notified his intention to remove the DPRK from his country’s list of “rogue states” or those suspected of sponsoring terrorism. His only caveat, which has now turned into a bone of contention, was that Pyongyang’s “nuclear declaration” should be verifiable by “international standards”.
Following that upturn in the U.S.-DPRK ties, the talks began taking steps to evolve norms to verify the relevant “declaration”. However, with the U.S. taking time to classify North Korea as a normal state, Pyongyang took the line that Washington “seeks to make a house search of the [entire] DPRK, which [at present] is neither a signatory to the NPT [Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty] nor a member of the IAEA”. With that salvo, the DPRK asked the IAEA to de-seal the Yongbyon reprocessing plant.
On paper, this development can be fatal to the six-party talks process. However, there was no immediate knee-jerk reaction from either the U.S. or China. Washington reiterated its insistence that the DPRK deliver a “verification package”. China called for “flexibility” on all sides to resolve the new crisis. These are terms which may yet acquire new meanings in international diplomacy.


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